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An international research team, which includes UvA archaeologist Liesbeth Smits, has uncovered the remains of four people in a sequence of remarkable discoveries related to the famous ‘Batavia’ shipwreck, which took place of the coast of Western Australia in the 17th century. The remains were found at Beacon Island and form part of a larger Australian-funded archaeological project dedicated to reassessing some of the country’s earliest shipwrecks.

Liesbeth Smits - archeology
Liesbeth Smits (Photo: Anneke Dekker)

Smits and her colleagues made their unique discovery earlier this month after conducting fieldwork at various archaeological sites on Beacon Island. A total of three burial sites were found containing the bodily remains of three adults and an adolescent, as well as historic artefacts such as musket balls and remnants of copper clothing clasps. In the coming months, Smits and Daniel Franklin, associate professor at the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Centre for Forensic Science, will conduct a thorough analysis of the remains with a view to reconstructing the events surrounding these individuals’ deaths and internment.  

The end of the Batavia

Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and built in Amsterdam, the Batavia tragically struck Morning Reef near Beacon Island in the Houtman Abroholos, Western Australia on the morning of 4 June, 1629. Of the estimated 341 people on board, most made it to nearby islands, but 196 people subsequently died – including women and children – as a result of a bloody mutiny among the shipwrecked survivors. Lost to posterity for several centuries, the wreck site was finally discovered in 1963 and excavated in the 1970s. Since then, archaeological work on several surrounding islands has unearthed important historic material associated with the wreck.

Reconstructing the past

The latest finds bring the total number of bodies found to 13 and represent a unique opportunity to learn more about the shipwreck and mutiny, but also about the life and times of sailors on board VOC ships. According to Smits, who will help to conduct isotope research on the remains, the project is important because it deals with an event of shared historical significance for both the Netherlands and Australia. Besides resulting in what was probably the first legal process to take place in Australia, the shipwreck is also believed to have given Australia its first two European inhabitants, Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom. ‘We know what transpired, and that is very seldom the case within the field of archaeology’, Smits explains. ‘The brutalities, rapes and large-scale killings, followed by the execution of the culprits, make for a gripping story. I’ve always been surprised, however, at how little is known about the mutiny in the Netherlands.’

Shipwrecks of the Roaring Forties

The archaeological work being done by Smith and her colleagues forms part of the project ‘Shipwrecks of the Roaring Forties’, which is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and led by Professor Alistair Paterson from the UWA. The project, in which the University of Amsterdam is an active partner, relies heavily on remote sensing techniques to improve current knowledge about archaeological sites. Part of the project will include the creation of a virtual reality website that will allow visitors to see Beacon Island as it has stood over time.